Sixteen years ago I was sitting with a friend on a suburban sidewalk curb on a sunny afternoon in Northern California, shooting the shit over a shared bottle of Mountain Dew.
We were 16 years old and clad in well-worn Converse All Stars, plain brown pants, threadbare black hoodies and punk rock t-shirts. We were your typically naïve and hopelessly idealistic middle-class, suburban, American teenagers; vaguely passionate about far-off, abstract social causes of some sort or other, willfully disaffected and under the deluded impression that by listening to enough indie-label music and reading enough underground ‘zines we might somehow be able to suss-out—between the two of us—just what was wrong with the world. In other words, we were a pair of green, stargazing idiots.
I recall the teenaged version of myself saying to my friend, “Hey, man … have you ever thought about what the world would be like without stimulants? Like, what if there were just, like, no mood-altering chemicals out there: no pot, no acid, no ‘shrooms, no cocaine, and no alcohol? Wouldn’t that be so great? I mean—think about it—it would probably be a way, way better world to live in, because people wouldn’t be able to escape their problems the way they do now. People wouldn’t be able to just get drunk or high and then avoid dealing with all the fucked up shit that goes on in the world— they’d have to face all the ugliness and actually solve problems like poverty, racism, sexism, inequality and war. They’d have no chemical escapism, so they’d, like, have to actually face up to how fucked up everything is and fix things.”
My friend paused a moment, contemplatively furrowed his brow, then nodded in sober agreement. “Yeah, man…yeah, that would be a better world for sure.”
Yes, I actually said that (or at least something along those lines) 16 years ago. I recently turned 32—yes, twice the age I was when my young friend and I longingly contemplated a stimulant-free and problem-free planet—and nowadays I couldn’t disagree with my 16-year-old self more.
Having long since turned into a consummate inebriate, these days I regard the notion that intoxicants are just distractions—hindering humanity’s ability to create a peaceful, hand-holding utopia—as comically simplistic, laughable. In fact, I’d now actually argue that stimulants are more likely a key element of the social glue that bonds civilized society together, entrenching people in a shared commonality of experience—helping to keep us, to whatever extent, from tearing each other’s throats out. Because regardless of one’s stature in the world or station in life, stimulants are one of the few things that can make life bearable—if not enjoyable—for everyone, equally.
My drug of choice is alcohol. Perhaps you prefer another—that’s fine—but booze is the intoxicant most agreeable to my own particular set of needs. I love alcohol—love it, man. One of the reasons I’m so fond of booze is simply that, pragmatically speaking, it makes life easier for me. Because what I couldn’t have realized as an unworldly teenager 16 years ago is that being an adult is a tiresome pain in the ass a lot of the time. Sure, those of us in the modernized West have transcended the assorted woes of our past: we’re not fighting off wild animals with our bare hands, nor dying by the millions of plague or starvation. But nevertheless, modern grown-up everyday life can still be a real headache: rent, insurance, phone bills, gas bills, water bills, electrical bills, medical bills. Taxes, debt, collection agencies, inflation, recession, depression. Soul-crushing day jobs, deadlines, unpaid invoices, downsizing. Gridlock, fender benders, parking tickets, roadside repairs, police sirens. Backaches, doctor’s appointments, root canals. Aggressive panhandlers, door-to-door solicitors, vengeful neighbors, nagging relatives, barking dogs, obnoxious teenagers. The head-game pitfalls of modern dating, et cetera.
This is the stuff of contemporary adult life and it frequently strays into head-throbbingly stress-inducing I-want-to-punch-walls-or-fucking-kill-somebody territory.
Unsurprisingly, something is needed to, as they say, take the edge off. In my case, this is alcohol. Booze is the soporific balm that lets the misanthropic beast in my head get some rest, and thereby makes all the little nuisances of modern life bearable and worth putting up with.
I recently found myself standing in line at my local supermarket, at 9pm on a Wednesday, buying groceries for one. Burned-out from working a lame 9-to-5 office job, I stood there with a pounding headache and a sore neck, praying my credit card wouldn’t be declined once I took the place of the overfed hog of a woman in front of me (who was paying for everything with food stamps and/or coupons, and wasn’t even attempting to keep her screaming brood of snot-faced rug rats under control). I summoned every last ounce of patience I had left to remain calm, collected and minimally polite. As the vein in my forehead started to throb, I fantasized about standing in line at a gun store, praying my credit card wouldn’t be declined, so I could buy an AK-47 and indiscriminately massacre everyone in this place.
Then I remembered something, something that let all the stress flow out of me like gutter water down a sewer grate: there was a 12-pack of ice-cold beer waiting for me in the fridge at home.
This thought, this simple consolation, carried me through the horror of the moment, as similarly booze-related consolations have carried me through similar situations many times before.
It’s a small slice of solace, I know, but the point is that whatever the frustrations and tribulations of my day-to-day life may be, it’s a powerful thing to know that I can go home, close the door on the outside world, crack open a cold can of beer, close my eyes, tip my head back, savor the crisp, nonjudgmental, liquid kiss and wash my humdrum troubles away. Within 20 minutes of having drank the first can and moving on to the rest—as if by some sort of neurochemical magic—I feel just fucking fine, thank you very much. Moreover, I don’t even remember whatever it was that I was so annoyed about in the first place. Soon enough, I’m laughing at my own jokes and having conversations with the furniture—totally alone and in a state of ephemeral, alcohol-induced bliss.
And that’s just one of the many, many reasons why I love alcohol. I also love that it motivates me. It inspires me do fun, funny, oftentimes crazily-stupid things. It prompts me to tell cocky boors at the bar exactly what I think of them (and to hell with the consequences), it assures me that I’m witty (even when I’m very likely not), and imbues me with the distorted self-confidence to chat up foxy girls I’d never met before. Alcohol reminds me that sometimes it’s a good idea to live a little, to take the time to drunkenly knock over a row of Vespa scooters outside a hipster coffee shop and running like hell. You never know what’ll happen when you’re loaded out of your gourd, and in the disenchanting, spirit-crushing, punch-clock world we’ve managed to fashion for ourselves, that’s an invaluable quality to say the least.
Of course, not everyone agrees. Although it is popularly conceived of as “the land of the free,” the United States seems to be eternally besieged by many citizens of the Captain Bringdown variety. Yes, counterintuitive as it may be, there are many self-righteous, absolutist, buzz-kill busybodies among us who can only be described as prohibitionists—actively engaged in the advocacy of some form of censure.
Presumably, these people gain some sense of self-worth by attempting to dictate, by way of legislation, the social mores and tangible liberties of the rest of us (the power to control what other people do is, ironically, intoxicating in its own way).
As far as I’m concerned, they’re all myopic, uptight jackasses. The problem with prohibitionists of all stripes is that their thinking is stunted; they tend to view things in the same sort of oversimplified, dumbed-down, dualistic way that my teenaged friend and I did 16 years ago. When confronted with the overwhelming complexities of life and the world, these reproachful souls say to themselves, Golly, if only we could rid the world of that evil booze everything would be so much better for everyone.
And that’s just naïve, shortsighted and silly—excusable in a teenager, perhaps, but deplorably misguided when carried into adulthood. Because even if it were feasible to wipe out some particular flavor of so-called vice, I’d still question the premise that doing so would in any way make the world a better place. After all, much of the Islamic world is free from the sins of alcohol, pornography and gambling—but at what price? And Communist North Korea does a swell job of keeping an air-tight lid on all sorts of social and moral deviance within its borders, but who’d want to live there?
It’s not just the prohibitionists’ basic assumptions that are misguided, their argumentative strategies are unsound as well. When railing against booze, for example, they tend to present the most extreme position as though it were the norm: all drinkers are alcoholics. Or they’ll cite impressive-sounding statistics about how many crimes are committed (indirectly) “because of” alcohol, how many people die every year in fraternity hazings due to alcohol poisoning, or—most often—how many people are killed annually as a result of drunk driving. And they lazily assume that these are valid arguments in support of the notion that alcohol should be banned outright. But they aren’t valid arguments— under scrutiny they’re revealed as absurd, over-simplified absolutism and an appeal to emotion rather than reason.
Consider: when impugning hooch, the typical prohibitionist tactic is to present a grim-sounding statistic or factoid that suits their argument, isolated and out of context. They’ll pull on heartstrings by pointing out how many people die in the U.S. annually from booze-related mishaps of some sort, but will neglect to present that figure alongside other causes of death, and/or relative to the total number of deaths—which is a deceptive tactic. In keeping with this cherry-picking of data, they’ll also ignore inconvenient statistics and truths, like the fact that moderate alcohol consumption lowers one’s risk of dying of heart disease, which is the leading killer in America. Or that the presence of alcohol in a society means, overall, that fewer people die each year.
Also misleading is the method in which the parameters of some prohibitionist-friendly statistic-generating studies are defined—for example, a study will rank a person who has more than two drinks a day as “an excessive drinker,” (which is quite a stretch, if you ask me). Or the fact that the federal government classifies a fatal accident as “alcohol-related” if it involves a driver, a biker, or a pedestrian with a blood alcohol content of 0.01 or more, whether or not drinking actually contributed to the accident. Yes, that’s right, if the fucking pedestrian has had a single glass of wine, it’s still tallied as an “alcohol related” accident.
Prohibitionists are also wont to present problems as being of an all-or-nothing variety, wherein the only way to address a given issue is to either unilaterally embrace their proposed solution or simply accept that there is no other reasonable option, which is rarely the case. For example: yes, a tragically-high percentage of American teenagers die in booze-related accidents annually—but how does that percentage compare to populations in Europe, where the drinking age is generally lower and the enticing taboo of forbidden Demon Rum holds less sway over the young? One way to mitigate the problem might be to ban alcohol outright or stiffen drunk driving penalties—yes, that’s one possible option—but another might be to simply increase the driving age and/or lower the drinking age, so as to acclimate teens to responsible drinking earlier in life, à la certain European models. Such middle-road options at least bear considering, but they tend to be dismissed out-of-hand by axe-grinding all-or-nothing prohibitionists.
But let’s set all that aside, because when it really comes down to it, the fact that there are unfortunately some people out there who are actually irresponsible enough to drive while hammered ultimately only reflects upon those individuals —and that’s what’s really at issue here: individual choice. The ability to make decisions for one’s self. Every day, lots of people drink alcohol and have the forbearance of mind not to get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle and go careening down the freeway in a deadly game of vehicular pinball. Because they’re responsible adults who are cognizant of the fact that drunk driving is the apex of Moron Mountain—just above playing Russian Roulette, running with scissors, and juggling razor blades—and I for one find it insulting when it’s insinuated that I’m somehow responsible by proxy for actions of a minority of nitwits.
To illustrate how silly this kind of prohibitionist quasi-logic is, allow me to draw a similarly irrational, emotionally-seated parallel: When I was in college, the Women’s Student Union at my university briefly sponsored a campaign to put “socially aware” slogans on the plastic urinal-cake-holders in all the men’s restrooms on campus. Each bore the message: You hold in your hands the power to stop rape. After a brief uproar, the holders were removed by order of the university’s administration. Why? Because they implied that all men are in some way complicit in rape (and somehow have the power to stop it), simply because the act is committed by some men. Which is absurd and patently insulting to roughly half the population.
Imagine if this sort of specious prohibitionist reasoning were applied to other areas of life. Every year a certain percentage of people plug too many Christmas tree lights into a single electrical socket and don’t water their trees enough, causing them to dry out. A subset of that percentage of trees catch fire, burn the house down and kill the family inside—so should we ban Christmas lights or indoor trees? Plenty of children drown in swimming pools every year, so should we therefore outlaw swimming pools? Airplanes provide us with global transportation, but some of them crash and kill people, should they be proscribed as well? What about cars? The automotive death toll is far from insignificant, should they be outlawed?
No reasonable person would seriously argue that pools, Christmas trees, cars or airplanes should be banned—because as ostensibly responsible citizens of a free culture we accept the fact that some of the pleasures and conveniences of life come with risks and when the benefits of those pleasures and conveniences outweigh the risks then they ought to be permitted for the common good. Prohibitionists can’t get their heads around this idea. They look at the most extreme anomalies on the fringes of whatever behavior they’re in favor of curtailing, posit those extreme anomalies as the norm, and then insist that they constitute a threat to society as a whole. Which is ridiculous, not to mention intellectually disingenuous. It’s silly to let a few bad apples dictate how everyone else is treated—to do so is to pander to the lowest elements in all of us, by treating everyone like the worst among us.
The simple fact of the matter is that with liberty comes responsibility. Having the freedom to drive a car carries with it the liability of having an accident. Having the freedom to drink carries with it the responsibility of not doing stupid things like driving a car while drunk. The right to chemically adjust one’s mental state via alcohol and other intoxicants is an essential freedom—a tangible liberty that goes hand-in-hand with the pursuit of happiness—and one that deserves more sticking up for.
In a complicated and often topsy-turvy world, stimulants like booze help us take the edge off without regard to race, class or creed. In this sense, they’re a great unifier; from the wealthiest investment banker to the most impoverished wino, they allow each of us the opportunity to relax and enjoy life, regardless of whether we’re sleeping in the penthouse suite or the gutter. What could possibly be more intrinsically American than that?
So the next time you hear a gaggle of uptight no-fun-niks pining about how “there ought to be a law” against something-or-other, ask yourself: Who the fuck do a bunch of bothered busybodies think they are to tell the rest of us what we ought to be drinking, smoking, eating, saying or watching?
The self-righteous arrogance of it all is incredulous and more drinkers (and pot smokers, and gamblers, et al) ought to challenge it more vocally and more often, because it’s bullshit.
For an even longer version of this article, go here.